The Buzz: House Ethics members mostly mum on Harrell-Wilson feud

jself@thestate.comMay 10, 2014 

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, right, confers with Solicitor General Robert Cook, middle, and others during a hearing to determine whether the attorney general has jurisdiction over campaign spending complaints lodged against House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

JEFF BLAKE — jblake@thestate.com Buy Photo

The Buzz asked five members of the House Ethics Committee what they would do if a judge decides that they – not the state’s top prosecutor, Attorney General Alan Wilson – should be the first stop for all allegations against House members, including specifically Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

Their answers in short? They will do what they are obligated to do, by state law, and will treat Harrell, one of the most powerful politicians in the state, like any other House member coming before them.

None would weigh in on whether Superior Court Judge Casey Manning would be justified in sending the Harrell case to the House Ethics Committee.

But state Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, said a prosecutor – which Wilson is – has a right to investigate anything that he thinks may be criminal – “however it comes to his attention,” in a formal complaint, something said in a conversation or otherwise.

“When you’re in a position as a prosecutor, your job is to seek justice,” said Pope, a former solicitor best known for prosecuting Susan Smith.

The State Grand Jury is investigating allegations that Harrell used campaign money and his legislative position for personal gain. The Charleston Republican has asked Judge Manning to disqualify Attorney General Wilson, R-Lexington, from that investigation. According to speculation, a ruling is imminent. (Of course, a ruling also reportedly was imminent last Wednesday, and Thursday, and ...)

Pope said he would hope the 10-member Ethics Committee would take up any matter against Harrell while it’s “fresh” and decide whether the allegations fall under the committee’s purview – civil violations.

The committee’s ability to investigate is limited, he added. Staff attorneys end up doing the work that law enforcement investigators normally would do.

“They do a good job, but it’s a little out of their wheelhouse,” Pope said.

House Ethics Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, and Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said there would be no conflicts of interest in them reviewing a complaint against Speaker Harrell because the House leader did not appoint them to the Ethics Committee. Instead, House members elected them.

However, Harrell did appoint Bingham and Stavrinakis to the coveted House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the drafting of the state budget, arguably the most important responsibility and powerful position that a lawmaker can have.

Two other Ethics Committee members had little to say about the Harrell-Wilson feud.

Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, a retired police officer, said he hasn’t been following the showdown. Pitts said he does not read the newspapers “by design.”

Ronnie Sabb, D-Williamsburg, said it would be inappropriate for him to comment.

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